In my post about the Amish last week (“The Amish Question” at http://sustainableus.org/2013/05/29/the-amish-question/) I tried to delineate why going “backwards” isn’t an option to save the planet. The economics behind it are actually a bit more involved than I discussed, but the post was already lengthy, so I resisted the urge to expound. But, short version once again—we aren’t going to be able to create a rural paradise where we all spend our days gardening under our solar panels . We’ll have some of that, and agriculture might return to being more labor intensive, but we’ll also have cities and factories and production and people getting masters degrees in engineering and writers and chemists and professors and statesmen and bankers. The complexity of our economy creates efficiency and wealth, so these things need to remain. We need to adapt and change, but we can’t go backwards to some widespread, lower-tech utopia. In reality, if we did, we’d be too poor.
By the same token, however, we need to be careful about staking too much hope in “going forward”, of saving ourselves with technology and future breakthroughs. The ideas of futurists are many, from bio-luminescent street lamps and building skins that change properties or cold fusion or thorium reactors or artificial photosynthesis or space-based solar arrays that beam energy to the surface with microwaves. If breakthroughs happen, it will be wonderful, but we can’t stake our future on them. Some of these might indeed be perfected, but might end up being prohibitively expensive. (And sometimes I feel like we’re not ready for these breakthroughs; i.e., if we had ever-more abundant energy, even if it was renewable, I’m afraid we’d just use it to accelerate our destructive habits. As a species, we seem to be lacking some wisdom and maturity.)
BUT—there is a middle ground. We have proven technologies today that can be combined in new and novel ways, or scaled up. We can build super-insulated homes, now. We can put solar panels and solar hot water on every building, now. We can scale up agriculture practices that protect the land, now. We can create much more wind power, and greatly expand high-speed electric rail, and change our paradigms with regard to using cars (say, by sharing them like the ZipCar programs), now. We can scale up and expand recycling, now. We can build walkable cities, and we can protect habitat, now, with the technology we have. We can ride our bikes. We can change our lifestyles, and set the example. And I’ll just stop here—the list of things we could do right now, with technologies and systems that we already have, is a long one.
So, in my humble opinion—THIS is where our efforts should be focused. These things exist. They are real. They are affordable, compared to cold fusion or a hydrogen economy. There is no magic bullet involving future inventions that is guaranteed to save us, there is no reality in romantic visions of going backward. The time is now. The place is here. The tools are at our disposal. The choices are ours. We are out of excuses; we are out of time to continuously ponder. WE. MUST. START. ACTING.
Image credit: silvertiger / 123RF Stock Photo